Preet Bharara: Ed Luce, thank you so much for joining us on the show.
Ed Luce: It’s a pleasure to be here, Preet.
Preet Bharara: So, we have a lot of things to talk about. You’ve written a lot of things. You’re a keen observer of what’s going on in the US and the world, and you bring the perspective of somebody who’s outside of the United States, so that’s interesting to talk about. Can we start with some basics, because people throw around these terms, whether it’s political candidates, or pundits, or academics. You wrote a book not too long ago called The Retreat of Western Liberalism, which we’ll get into some of the themes of that, but in your mind, what is Western Liberalism, because I think different people think different things when they hear that term.
Ed Luce: That’s a very good question. I certainly don’t mean the Americans’ use of the term liberal. I mean Western Liberalism in the classical sense, a sense that will be more familiar to the founding fathers, and to the Lockes and Montesquieus who sort of built the intellectual framework for the liberal political model, and that is something that in time, but also, I think, in logic, precedes the democratic model. It is about having an executive that has some checks on it, whether that’s in the British system with a constitutional monarchy, or the American system with an elected presidency checked by a separate legislature. It’s about having smaller republican controls on the power of government. It’s about an independent judiciary, and it’s about a government that does not derive power from divine right or some other mystical force, but from the consent of the people, and that’s where it then becomes democratic over time, but it’s a separate word from liberalism, and so I very deliberately did not talk about the retreat of Western Democracy, because I think we’re going through a period of illiberal democracy. It’s about the retreat of the liberal part of it.
Preet Bharara: But the criteria you set forth just now for what qualifies as Western Liberalism, they’re not so high. Independent judiciary, as opposed to an independent press, leaders who don’t derive power from divine right, those are sort of bare minimum. Right? Don’t we still have that in most places that used to have that?
Ed Luce: We still have that. I think we have less of an understanding of how valuable it is. What we do have, and I think we do have a conflation in our mind that what the majorities say is right is liberal democracy. That’s the sum of it. It’s majoritarian democracy. If you look at places like Hungary where you’ve got Viktor Orbán proudly calling himself an illiberal democrat, then you see that illiberalism is not consistent with democracy for that long. Eventually, democracy goes, too, and it’s very hard to make the case that you can have a free and fair election in Hungary. The United States has a much more robust and much, much … I think it’s by and large holding up under Donald Trump, a much more robust constitutional tradition. It’s the longest unbroken one in history, and I’m a little bit less pessimistic about its durability. If Trump’s reelected, of course, I might become more pessimistic, but-
Preet Bharara: Will you write very dire columns then?
Ed Luce: Yes. I suspect in the weird way of these things, it would be another boom time for media, but it would be a very dire time for all other aspects of society.
Preet Bharara: Does the term Western Liberalism only include nations in the West? For example, I am from India, was born in India, and I know you were a bureau chief in India for a period of time, in South Asia. Is India a model of Western Liberalism, or has it ever been?
Ed Luce: India’s an extremely interesting example, and it’s very telling. I’m glad you asked me about India. It’s very telling. They’re the largest democracy in the world, which is about to hold its next general election in April and May, which by definition, every time it holds a general election, it’s the largest democratic exercise in human history. It’s very telling that India is excluded from the hang wringing that we’re all, in some form or another, indulging in about the future of liberal democracy, because it is the largest … I would call it a secular plural democracy in the world. It’s the largest democracy in the world, but I would call India’s system secular pluralism rather than classical liberalism, but it shares many of the features, and it also shares some of the problems besetting, namely, a rising yearn for a demagogic media, increasingly demagogic media that is afflicting us in other democracies, but the one thing India clearly isn’t is Western, and so I omit it for that reason.
Preet Bharara: So, sometimes people in this country bemoan the state of affairs, you’ve talked about, as I’ve mentioned already in the title of your book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism, there are problems in lots of country, and I wonder if you keep score as between your current home in the US and where you’re from, the UK. Who’s fairing better on these terms these days?
Ed Luce: I tend to think that the British are in more trouble because Brexit is for keeps, and four years later it’s gonna be very, very difficult for us to change our minds, and therefore, we’re gonna have to live with it.
Preet Bharara: Right, whereas Donald Trump is not for keeps.
Ed Luce: He might only have 18 months, well, 20 months or so left in office. As I said earlier, to a previous question, if Trump is reelected, I will revisit that view, but the American convulsions happening in American society, as well as in American politics, are of extreme importance to the entire world. Britain can have a provincial conniption. It can walk off the chessboard, which essentially is what it has done, but the breakdown of British institutional norms is, I think, perhaps more dramatic than it is in the United States. I’ll just give you one very sort of small anecdotal example.
Ed Luce: On the day that Theresa May came back with her last minute compromise from Brussels to say, “Look. Now can you vote for my Brexit plan,” her attorney general, the most senior legal official in Britain, was tweeted at by a very famous news anchor saying, “We believe that your view is that this deal is no different from the one she went to Brussels with,” and he replied 30 seconds later, “Bollocks.” That’s on Twitter, within 30 seconds, our most senior legal official, “Bollocks.” There’s a sort of degradation. There’s no real metric for this. There’s a degradation-
Preet Bharara: I need to interrupt you, Ed. I don’t know if you’re familiar with a gentleman named Donald J. Trump who tweets much worse than bollocks, I think.
Ed Luce: He does. He does, but somehow it’s just him. I mean, there are, of course, all kinds of really ghastly figures in the media. There are Tucker Carlsons and so forth, and Ann Coulters, but in Britain it’s normal. In many roles, it’s normalized. Trump is, I hope, maybe I’m being too optimistic here, is [inaudible 00:07:17] generous. In Britain, this is typical behavior now.
Preet Bharara: What would happen, and I’ve always wondered this, if the president of the United States was subjected to, in Congress, what the prime minister in the UK is subjected to from time to time by Parliament, Prime Minister’s Questions, can you describe how that works and how you think that would operate in America?
Ed Luce: This happens once a week, and the prime minster has to take any questions. It alternates. The speaker takes one question from the opposition benches, and the next from the prime minister’s own party, the Conservative Party. She has to be extremely well briefed. One of the most accomplished British prime ministers, Harold Macmillan, even six, seven years into his prime ministership, said he would physically vomit before each Prime Minister’s Question time. It’s a very stressful episode. The American system is different. There are presidents, I can imagine, who would relish it. Bill Clinton I think would’ve considered that to be a treat.
Preet Bharara: Right, maybe Kennedy, too.
Ed Luce: Maybe Kennedy would’ve, too. So, part of it is about the cut and thrust of whatever personality you’ve got. I think Obama, in a slightly more thoughtful, slow-paced form, would’ve relished it, too, because he is an extremely learned and thoughtful man. Trump would somehow find a way of turning it his advantage.
Preet Bharara: Well, it would be great theater. I mean, I guess my question is, not having watched too many sessions of Prime Minister’s Questions, does it shed any light, or is it mostly theater?
Ed Luce: You can get caught out. There’s very much a gotcha culture there, where if a prime minister gives the wrong answer or misleads the house, that is something that, at least when normal British political rules were in operation, could damage or even lead to a prime minister’s downfall, or the resignation of a cabinet minister, but that no longer applies. I mean, there are all kinds of rules that used to apply, unwritten, conventions rather than laws that are therefore invisible, taken for granted until you lose them, and when you lose them, you realize what you’ve lost. I suspect May could stand up and say all kinds of things nowadays that are not true. In fact, I don’t suspect. I know she’s been doing this for the last two-and-a-half years since she became prime minister. She has been misleading the house sort of ritually, and there are no real consequences.
Preet Bharara: Are you allowed to say bollocks?
Ed Luce: It is bollocks. She talks bollocks regularly, once a week, from the dispatch box, as they say.
Preet Bharara: Once upon a time, I had this resolution to introduce a new word into my vocabulary from time to time, and I’m gonna introduce bollocks.
Ed Luce: I do have great fondness for the word [omnishambolic 00:10:04]. Omnishambolic strikes me as a good fitting-
Preet Bharara: That’s too many syllables, and it doesn’t sound as much like a curse.
Ed Luce: You’re right. It sounds a little bit too pompous. I still like the word.
Preet Bharara: Can you explain something to all of us that I’m actually confused about, and that we’re all thinking about, and that is many, many people talk about how democracy is broken, and some people think that is so because Donald Trump is the president, and some people think that is so because you have Brexit, which is problematic from the point of view of a lot of people, but I guess my question is, on what basis can you say democracy is broken? I guess in the US, you can say, “Well, the electoral college is problematic, and there’s gerrymandering, and there are all sorts of issues about photo suppression.”
Preet Bharara: Sure, but overall, isn’t it true that democratic institutions, by that I mean the voting processes, and access to information, and the free press, and the free marketplace of ideas still exists to an overwhelming extent, both in the US and the UK, and all sorts of other places that are undergoing hardship, and that by definition, if you get Brexit, democracy is working. If you get Trump, you may not like the result, but a lot of people do, and democracy is working. So, what do we mean when we say, when some people say, that things are falling apart and not working?
Ed Luce: I don’t think democracy is broken. That’s not a phrase I would use. I think we’re each very Tolstoyan in that we’re uniquely unhappy in the way our political systems are functioning, and so you can get into particular causes and details in each country, but there are two sort of things that are in common across the West, regardless of which democracy you look at. One is that there is this declining faith and trust in our institutions, and if you look at a graph in Italy, it doesn’t look much different to one in the United States, or in Britain, or in France. German ones come from a higher level. There is higher trust there, but it’s in the wrong direction.
Ed Luce: We’re all going in the wrong direction. Even Canada, for goodness’ sake, and trust, I think, is to democracy what fear is to autocracy. I mean, it’s a really important sort of glue that keeps our systems functioning. So, there’s been a decline, and there continues to be a deep decline, and therefore rise in cynicism in our institutions. That’s not a snap one moment democracy’s broken measure. It’s an erosion. It’s a sort of termites in the floorboards measure.
Preet Bharara: But aren’t some institutions right to be mistrusted? I mean, in other words, what automatically renders institutions trustworthy? It’s not really that we’re saying … I’m trying to diagnose the problem. It’s not really that we’re saying, “Well, there are these great institutions, and people over time have become cynical about them.” Isn’t it more that, well, these intuitions have failed folks, and to some extent, legitimately and in good faith, they have lost faith in those institutions and trust in those intuitions as a matter of course?
Ed Luce: I think that’s absolutely right. I mean, there are reasons for this cynicism. I mean, if you look at another measure that we all share in common across the West, we are seeing declining earnings potential for large shares of our populations and rising inequality, the top sort of sections getting a greater and greater share of the economic pie, and no, that in turn feeds the cynicism about what is our secular religion, which is meritocracy. It’s fairness. It’s that to some degree talent is what determines whether you can get ahead, and hard work, and people don’t believe that anymore, and when they’re told that the system is fine and that growth is at this level and that you should be celebrating, they are rightly very, very skeptical about what they’re being told. So, I think there’s definitely … There are objective explanations for why people are feeling sort of toxically mistrustful of institutions, because those institutions aren’t performing the way that their parents or maybe their elder siblings expected them to.
Preet Bharara: How about one of the institutions that you’re part of, the press? How is it performing?
Ed Luce: Well, we’ve got this sort of counterintuitive moment. Trump is a little bit like quantitative easing for journalism, and he’s really sort of boosted asset prices. Traffic has risen. Circulation has risen. I think that the demand for non-alternative facts has risen. I think there’s sort of, to use a word my daughter uses, a wokeness about a lot of new readers that might not be there had Trump not been elected. There’s a sort of shock to the system. So, you’ve got this counterintuitive thing where the media are doing really well, and we’re all sort of taking some guilty pleasure in chronicling what is actually a very disturbing phenomenon, the phenomenon of the Trump presidency.
Ed Luce: So, the media is not bad health. How sustainable that is, which is why I use the quantitative easing. The quantitative easing analogy is another question. Let’s say Mike Pence became president, something happened between now, an impeachment, or amendment 25, whatever it might be. Pence, to extend the analogy, would be like monetary normalization. He wouldn’t drive traffic in the same way. But you’re right. Media is doing okay in some measures. In others, it’s really not. If you look at the number of journalists who are based covering city halls, covering state legislatures, who are based in between the American coasts, they’ve been more than decimated. They’re a fraction of what they were, and that’s where democracy in action effects most people.
Preet Bharara: But is that a function of mistrust in institutions, or a failure of democracy, or pure business model for local journalism in the modern world?
Ed Luce: I think it’s more about the business model. I think that people are used to getting free stuff, and they’re not prepared to pay, and advertisers can find other ways of reaching consumers, and the newspaper was the middle man, as it were, and before this technology enabled that, but it has consequences for democracy and holding power to account. It means there are fewer eyeballs on the regulators and the politicians and other people who wield power, that’s dangerous.
Preet Bharara: I agree with that, more than you may appreciate. When I was [inaudible 00:16:32] attorney, we did a lot of work in public corruption, and some of those cases were spawned by local journalists who wrote about things that seemed fishy to them, and then we would investigate also, and the fewer such reporters that there are out there who are intrepid and fearless and keeping a watch, the fewer opportunities to hold folks accountable. So, I’m onboard with that analysis completely.
Ed Luce: Well, that’s a very good point.
Preet Bharara: You said something … Well, you said many interesting things, but one thing that struck me is how you describe the problems we’re facing today are different from some of the crises that the country and the world have faced before. So, you say the problems today are not like Pearl Harbor or Sputnik, or I imagine you might say 9/11, that you describe as unifying shocks that sort of galvanized bipartisan actions, and stir the system into decision. That’s not what we have here, but my question is, if there were to come another sort of galvanizing shock, a terrorist attack or some other crisis, would we be unified again and cast away all these divisions we currently have, or is there something about the current state of affairs that makes you worry about the next crisis in a different way than you might have before?
Ed Luce: The latter more. I mean, you mentioned in those lists of shock events, sort exogenous shocks that produced bipartisan action. You also mentioned 9/11, and 9/11 produce, I think, a disastrous response for which we’re still paying, and in some ways, you can see Trump as part of the price that we’re paying. I think that the reaction to that shock is exactly what we should not be wishing for. So, we should be careful what we wish for, and I do hear a lot of people, and I think that was part of the premise of your question, a lot of people are seeking some kind of forcing event to snap us back to our senses and ensure cross-aisle political action that can break through this horrible logjam, which is a very polite way of describing American politics.
Ed Luce: So, let’s say Putin, observing our weaknesses, observing our readiness to get hysterical more quickly, and to believe convenient explanations more readily, and to do due diligence less thoroughly, which is very much the case nowadays in the way we conduct our public debate, let’s say he managed to sort of arrange some kind of really horrific or chilling cyber attack, but without his signature on it, sometime in 2020. Who would benefit from that? What kind of galvanizing action would that produce? I don’t think it would be a Socratic or a Hamiltonian one, or at least I fear it wouldn’t be.
Ed Luce: In terms of what’s already beneath our nose, I do see a rather self-fulfilling tendency to demonize China as, okay, we need an external enemy. We need something to unify us, not just domestically, but across the Atlantic amongst allies, and we face a challenge from China. I do sense that in the debate on both sides of the Atlantic, there is a tendency to use the language that Tom Cotton, Senator Cotton used the other day. He described China as an evil empire, which is … It’s potentially horribly self-fulfilling, and completely misreads just how organized and determined, and indeed, disruptive China wants to be, but might make it more likely to behave like that.
Preet Bharara: May I go back and ask you about something you said a few minutes ago? Distinguishing the reaction that the country had to 9/11 from the reaction to some other things, I just want to make sure the listeners understand what you mean by saying that the reaction to 9/11 was the kind of thing that we don’t want.
Ed Luce: Yes. So, that produced two things. One was the fairly Draconian watering down of rights for many Americans and non-Americans after 9/11, their sort of dilution of habeas corpus rights here in the United States, which I think was terribly damaging, not just in terms of those whose rights had been abrogated, but also in terms of America’s reputation globally, the probity of this model, the independent judicial model, and I think then, of course, the Iraq War, and 9/11 was the pretext for a war that had been very much an apple in the eye of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and others, and that produced, depending on how you do your costs, anything between three to four to five trillion dollars of spending on a project that proved to be a [chimera 00:21:07].
Ed Luce: Saddam Hussein did not have links with Al-Qaeda, or indeed, a nuclear-ready program, on the basis of spreading democracy to the Middle East, which has not happened. Enormous damage. Again, a great sort of windfall to China, too, which wasn’t fighting wars of choice, wasn’t spending money, and wasn’t being humiliated in the field as America was for many years in Iraq. So, that’s perhaps exhibit A of how not to respond to a shock.
Preet Bharara: Well, do you have any doubt, and I don’t mean to sound dire here, that if something along those lines happened now, that the reaction with Donald Trump at the helm will be even worse in many ways? I know there’s some people who disagree, they don’t agree fully with what you said about the reaction, but is there any doubt that the reaction would be even more extreme this time around, given the state of play, given the state of rhetoric, and given how much hostility Donald Trump displays for certain kinds of things?
Ed Luce: I think our threshold has fallen so low that you wouldn’t need a 9/11 to produce that scary scenario. You’d need a San Bernardino for a public outcry that Trump could reap and turn to his own political advantage with unforeseeable sort of foreign policy actions and consequences [inaudible 00:22:21] them. I mean, I don’t think Trump is itching for a war, but I think he’s a fundamentally amoral person who will exploit, to the extent he needs to, whatever circumstances arise for his reelection, and so as I say, all you’d need is a San Bernardino for that.
Preet Bharara: Can we talk about a word that people like to talk about these days, especially as we’re gearing up for the 2020 election, and it means lots of different things to lots of people, and maybe the battles are won and lost based on what people’s perception of the word is, and you’ve written about it, socialism? When you observe American and you see the current political debates, and you see the Trump folks lining up to demonize any democrat who gets the nomination as a socialist, what do you think about that?
Ed Luce: I worry quite a lot about branding. I don’t think most Americans would call themselves a socialist. I think it’s no accident Millennials are sort of more likely to call themselves socialists because they don’t have the sort of memory … They weren’t alive when the Soviet version of socialism and the more extreme versions were our ideological rivals during the Cold War, and so it’s a sanitized word for them.
Ed Luce: What I think Trump wants to do and is doing so in a fairly consistent, disciplined way, as are people like Mike Pompeo and Mike Pence and others, is link Bernie Sanders’ ownership of the world socialist, democratic socialist, with Maduro’s Venezuela and Chavismo, that whole sort of broken model, when what Sanders means by it and what AOC means by it is something more akin to what we see in Denmark, or Sweden, or perhaps Germany, which is a mixed economy system where there is public health provision, that there is universal healthcare, that there is heavily subsidized access to higher education, better models of social protection for people who fall on economic hard times, consistent with a rather tooth-and-claw competitive market economy. That is a million miles from Venezuela, but I fear the branding war is something Trump is very good at. He’s not good at many things, but he’s very good at branding people with nicknames, labels. He’s good at campaigning.
Preet Bharara: When he called Jeb Bush Low-Energy Bush, Low-Energy Jeb, that stuck immediately.
Ed Luce: Yeah, Lying Ted Cruz. There’s a kernel of truth to some of his labels, which makes them more effective.
Preet Bharara: Is the way to deal with that, if you’re someone like Bernie Sanders or has different views, to engage in your own brand making and labeling, or can you not win that fight?
Ed Luce: I would argue aggressively that there is corporate socialism for Trump’s cronies, that there is a welfare socialism for the business lobbies. I would fight back on that, but I wouldn’t sort of brand everything you stand for as socialism. I don’t think that getting into a war over a word, particularly a word like this, has that much upside, because for some people with historic memory, people over 45, maybe, the word socialism is pretty well sort of entrenched in their minds, associated with the command administrative system of Stalin and his Warsaw Pact regimes, in which freedom did not exist, and it’s just too much of a risk with the Venezuela and Cuba type examples so close to us in this hemisphere, to risk that much over a word.
Preet Bharara: The interesting thing, you and I are around the same age, I believe, and I remember being a kid at the dinner table, and we had a certain kind of dinner table. My father was a practicing pediatrician, immigrant from India, the largest democracy in the world, who made his home with our family here in America, the oldest democracy in the world and most effective in longstanding democracy, as you’ve mentioned, and I remember being lectured by my father, my brother and I both, and how terrible socialism was, and he talked about communism also, but this was the height of the Cold War, and he would say things like, “Capitalism is good, and competition is good, and that’s how you get prosperity, and that’s how you incentivize people, and if people want to tax all my income, then I’m not gonna be incentivized to make any money.” These were in the days when there was a higher marginal tax rate, and that sits with you. So, even though I was a young person and you were a young person then also, when people talk about the world socialism, it has a certain cache in your brain.
Ed Luce: Yeah, and in its truer sense, socialism does derive, whether you’re a moderate socialist or a hardliner, does derive from a Marxian sort of common home, and I’m not sure it’s the best idiom to use in the United States. The idiom I would go for would be one that has a deep and very American pedigree, which is … During the progressive era, Teddy Roosevelt championed, and that in some respects, Elizabeth Warren is trying to champion, which is we believe in genuine capitalism. We don’t believe in capitalism for the insider, for the connected, for the already rich, for, in those days, the J.P. Morgans. Today, maybe it’s the Jamie Dimons or the Mark Zuckerbergs.
Ed Luce: We believe in a fair shake for everybody, little guy capitalism, and if that means breaking up monopolies because we believe in competition, then so be it. But it is important to stress here that, it’s a very good example, that when you have a system with social protections, you can afford to let companies fail, and a really good example is Saab in Sweden. Sweden, with all these social protections, for sickness, for retirement, and so forth, and for unemployment, could allow Saab, one of its national champions, to go bankrupt, and America could not allow the Big Three in Detroit to go back bankrupt, and that’s-
Preet Bharara: That’s because the collateral consequences to average people and workers is less in a country like that.
Ed Luce: It’s too great, just too great in America, and much less, as you say, in Sweden, and that means Sweden could allow the market to take its course in competition to work.
Preet Bharara: So, it sounds like what you’re saying in part is that people who have a view that spans the spectrum of how much you need regulation, and how much you need income inequality to come down, and how much of a safety net you need that’s paid for by taxpayer money, again, it’s on a spectrum, and different people have different views, but everyone is somewhere on that spectrum, even people like Donald Trump, because there’s such a thing as socialism for corporations, corporate socialism, but in some ways, it sounds like what you’re saying, that people who want to propose something different should not reject …
Preet Bharara: Whether or not they decide to embrace the word socialism or socialist, they should not reject out of hand completely the word capitalism, because lots of and lots of people have an affinity for it and believe, I think correctly, that in some ways there’s been more wealth generated over the course of the last hundreds of years, and more people brought out of poverty, and so I think it’s a fact, based on open markets and the capitalist system in various countries in the world, than through any other method or system. Is that fair?
Ed Luce: That is fair, and you include China in that, which might be normally communist, and it’s certainly autocratic, but has used the discipline and the ability to innovate of the free market and the private sector to produce high growth rates and lift more people out of poverty. That’s very true. But you choose your menu. There is nothing inconsistent with being in favor of capitalism and having a 70% tax rate on people who earn more than 10 million, and having very steep inheritance taxes.
Preet Bharara: We had that for a while during the time this country has been capitalist.
Ed Luce: Absolutely, and indeed, in equalizing the income tax on capitals gains rates. There are many, many ways to skin the cat, and I understand why people are reacting, throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Preet Bharara: Well, let’s talk about a figure, who you’ve mentioned, and I like the way you described the 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has become a very interesting figure, and known far and wide after not having anyone know her name just a few months ago, and you have written, quote, the fact that a 29-year-old former bartender has gone from zero to ubiquitous abbreviation, AOC, in a few months tells us something about America’s appetite for change. She is now the most influential figure in US politics after Mr. Trump. Is that an exaggeration, or do you stand by that, sir?
Ed Luce: I think I would stand by that.
Preet Bharara: Well, it was only two weeks ago, or three weeks ago.
Ed Luce: Yes. Yeah, exactly. If I was repudiating-
Preet Bharara: I hope you haven’t abandoned your views that quickly.
Ed Luce: Yeah, yeah. Give me at least a quarter before I repudiate myself. I think I would stand by that. I think she’s changed the weather, no pun intended, in terms of what’s considered acceptable to debate on the left, and also the boldness.
Preet Bharara: But has she changed the climate?
Ed Luce: Not yet, and I would quibble with her. I mean, there is another sort of analogy between her and Trump there, which is critics of her Green New Deal are taking it literally, but not seriously, and supporters are taking it seriously, but not literally, and you’d understand why if you support that, you wouldn’t want to take it literally.
Preet Bharara: What do you think accounts for someone like her becoming to quickly influential? In a heartbeat it happened. Talk about America’s appetite for change, and whether that’s good or bad.
Ed Luce: I think partly, it’s facility. She’s got an amazing talent for social media and for communication directly with people, and in a way, again, this is a Trumpian thing, that is plain talk. In the case of Trump it’s generally plain lies, but it’s plain talk, and she’s not a dishonest or mendacious character. She’s got a sort of very refreshing Millennial sort of directness. I think that the primary, in which she ejected the Congressman Crowley, he was very much establishment, and the fact that it happened in Brooklyn, which is very much an incubator of a lot of what’s modish and fashionable, that helped, too.
Preet Bharara: She’s from the Bronx.
Ed Luce: Yeah, sorry, but you’re quite right. She is from-
Preet Bharara: People here get very upset about those things.
Ed Luce: I know, and I do repudiate myself within three seconds of that one. But the fact that you have a president who essential rose through Twitter means other people can do it, and she knows what virality is. That’s the sort of theater sort of criticism or summary of her rise, but I think her ideas also speak to a very, very strong sense in America that there is deep unfairness, that the Democratic Party has been sort of doing a dance with this unfairness, compromising with it. It’s become timid and incrementalist and negotiates only with itself because the other side’s never there in good faith, and that we need a Trumpian response to Trump, and that involves very bold, very big, very bold ideas, and she’s just very good at it. When Elizabeth Warren did her live social media video shoot from her kitchen and thanked her husband for coming, you realize you either have this naturally, or you don’t, and if you don’t have it naturally, don’t try it.
Preet Bharara: Yeah. No, I agree with that.
Ed Luce: At home. Don’t do it at home.
Preet Bharara: Do you think that, given how easy it is for someone like Donald Trump now to communicate directly with folks, and AOC and others … I mean, I think there’s a lot of good there. I’m on Twitter. I’m not one of those folks, but I communicate directly with more than a million people now, which is astonishing, as a private citizen who has a podcast and a teaching spot at NYU Law School. But this even ground make the country more susceptible to the rise of a demagogue?
Ed Luce: Undoubtedly. It undoubtedly does. We always wish for something that we don’t have, and we used to desperately wish to get rid of the smoke-filled rooms. I guess they would be vape-filled nowadays, but that old model, the party decides, tended to produce insiders, and when you’re deeply cynical or mistrustful of politics, the last thing you want is an insider. So, the smoke-filled room is dead, and expertise is guilty until proven innocent, and experience is something that counts against you and not for you, and all of this is supercharged and enabled by the nature of social media nowadays.
Ed Luce: So, we are moving is as sort of tribune in the people direction, where the leader communicates directly with the mystical people, and is enabled to, and that sort of seems overdetermined by the climate that we’re living in, is we want a hail Mary person to come along. Most of the problems we face are pretty complicated, and they’re pretty … A lot of them are tractable. They are soluble, but they require quite a lot of detail, and we could get into some of those policy areas if you like, but this is an age where we’ve got this great demand for somebody who’ll just do it for us, and preferably somebody strong, and somebody clear, and somebody memorable. There’s so much noise out there. There are so many different ways of reaching people. People are either so bombarded or so turned off that you’ve gotta be even louder and even more demagogic to break through.
Preet Bharara: Or you can be the quietest person in the country, but have subpoena power and have been appointed special counsel, and you can still be viewed as a savoir by tens of millions of people if your name is Robert Mueller.
Ed Luce: Absolutely right. Absolutely right.
Preet Bharara: People are very hungry and desperate for an individual, whether it’s Mueller, or Trump, or AOC, or Beto O’Rourke, or someone, to deliver them and the country from all its troubles, but it’s not so easy as that.
Ed Luce: But it’s not so easy as that. I mean, I would be the last person to predict in what form Mueller’s report will come out, or how many reports there will be, and how much will be redacted, and how we’ll ever see the full … I would be the last to, but the pressure on the guy must be just acute because he is seen as a savior.
Preet Bharara: He can handle it. He eats a lot of spinach. You mentioned that you will revisit your view of how America is doing, depending on whether or not Donald Trump gets reelected. Some people have brought this other point up, Michael Cohen in his testimony before the house said at the end that he has some feeling that Donald Trump may not want to leave power, even if he’s not clearly reelected. Do you have that worry, or do you think that’s an overstatement?
Ed Luce: I do have that worry. I mean, I tend to-
Preet Bharara: You do?
Ed Luce: I tend to take him seriously, and I think that we had a way of reassuring ourselves after he won in 2016, that a lot of this was just for the campaign, and that he would then sort of switch, he would pivot to being a more sober-minded president in office, and that’s not been the case. I think his philosophy about how the world works, from the most granular level of how you treat humans like basically we’re all lying cheats, and it’s the bigger liar and the bigger cheat who wins, and that writ large for global foreign policy has been a consistent trait of his career and his character since he started appearing on the page of The New York Post 50 years ago. So, I tend to take him seriously, and I think his prolonged sort of envy sessions for autocrats around the world is a genuine expression of what he feels about them, which is admiration and envy.
Preet Bharara: Well, it must be, because it doesn’t serve him in any way, shape or form. Right? What’s odd about it is if it were just a game, and he was trying to gain the favor of some constituents, I think his constituents have come to just respect and like whatever he does, but wouldn’t have in the first instance, given a menu of choices, have said, “Hey, it would be great if you express a lot of admiration, respect and love for the great autocrats of the world?” Right? He brings them along, but it can’t be part of an actual strategy to firm up his base. Right?
Ed Luce: No, I don’t think it is. I think it’s sort of a reflection of how he treats and flatters and caters to Mohammad Bin Salman, for example, or in a very different way, to Kim Jong-un. I think that reflects his idea how you do business, is basically you get the other guy, the bad hombre, and you just do the deal together, and flattery gets you everywhere, and I think he’s too sort of wired, deeply wired in that mode that might work in the property development business. I don’t know. It might work in a bankruptcy court.
Preet Bharara: Maybe get you into bankruptcy.
Ed Luce: It maybe gets you into bankruptcy.
Preet Bharara: It does, and then later a different kind of bankruptcy. Is he a good deal maker?
Ed Luce: No.
Preet Bharara: Does his base think he’s a good deal maker still, even though he’s not, by every outside measure?
Ed Luce: I don’t think his base define deals the way we define deals. I think there is something that scholars call negative partisanship that has taken over American politics in the last decade or two. I’d personally date its origins to Newt Gingrich, whereby your motive of being loyal to your party is that it can really humiliate the other one. It’s an expression of your hatred for the other party rather than your positive agenda for what kind of reform you think that party’s gonna produce in government, and in that respect, by that measure, Trump is delivering on his mandate. He provokes. He humiliates. He winds us up. He has us foaming at the mouth. He has Trump derangement syndrome, and that causes great, great schadenfreude and pleasure to his base. So, I think the sort of core base hate liberals. They hate experts. They hate people who sort of do dull deals with foreigners, and so what kind of deal is it that they wanted him to clinch? I think he’s clinching the kind of deal his most visceral supporters wanted him to clinch.
Preet Bharara: So, how do you evaluate the ever-growing 2020 democratic field? Who’s in good position? Who’s not? Who do you think will understand the way to both get the nomination and then be a good adversary against Donald Trump in 2020?
Ed Luce: I would like to say that I admire Elizabeth Warren, and I do admire a lot of the work she’s done on a lot of areas like anti-monopoly, like the wealth tax, which I think is a good idea, like revising, at least having a debate about what shareholder capitalism is for, and what the regulatory system should require of it. There’s all kinds of things that Elizabeth Warren is delving into that the other candidates are only dealing with much more lightly and in a slightly more sloganized form. I just don’t think she’s particularly beloved of people, and I also think that Trump would relish the prospect. This is a successful … The Pocahontas branding is a successful one that she’s actually sort of inadvertently helped him with, and so I think she would be a flawed candidate. She’s not even that popular in Massachusetts, her home state.
Preet Bharara: How do you compare Senator Warren to Senator Bernie Sanders?
Ed Luce: I think Sanders has a far more avid and enthusiastic base, and it’s shown in the money raising numbers. I also think he deserves some credit for changing the conversation before AOC did. He did. He’s the sort of grandfather of this change of conversation, and I applaud him for that. I do think he would make a hopeless presidential nominee, and I-
Preet Bharara: Why is that?
Ed Luce: I think that when you’re talking about Medicare for all, which is, roughly speaking, three trillion dollars a year, and the budget today is what, four-and-a-half trillion dollars, you’re talking about a 75% addition to the budget. You have got to go beyond the taxing of the rich, which is absolutely necessary, don’t get me wrong, and you’ve gotta be straight with people and say, “It’s gonna involve broad-based tax increases,” which is fine. If you want something and want to pay for it, that’s totally fine, and I’m biased towards universal healthcare, but he’s not being accurate with the numbers. He’s not being frank about the numbers, and I think Trump would have a field day with that, and-
Preet Bharara: Are people being accurate with the numbers when it comes to the Green New Deal?
Ed Luce: Well, there’s been some stratospheric estimates of what it would cost.
Preet Bharara: Right. What will cost more, universal healthcare or the Green New Deal?
Ed Luce: The Green New Deal will cost a lot more, but it’s because it’s not just a Green New Deal. It’s everything. It’s also universal employment. It’s universal basic income. It’s a lot of things loaded into the Green New Deal, and one estimate has the sort of total lifetime cost of it at 93 trillion dollars, but you’d be-
Preet Bharara: Why can’t we have Mexico pay for it?
Ed Luce: Yes, Mexico. That would be convenient, and maybe some people would believe it. I think maybe Russia should pay for it.
Preet Bharara: If I were to run … I’m surprised that the democratic candidates aren’t just running on that platform. “It cost too much? No. Believe me, Mexico will pay for it,” and then ultimately, it doesn’t seem to matter.
Ed Luce: There is something called Modern Monetary Theory, which is that it is kind of the left’s version of magical thinking, and it’s caught on in some circles, but it’s not the same as Trump saying Mexico will pay for it. It’s a little bit too abstruse to go viral, and that’s a good thing.
Preet Bharara: Ed Luce, we could go on for a long time. I’m getting the signal that they’re gonna throw us out of the studio. So, thank you again for your time. It’s been a real pleasure talking with you.
Ed Luce: Hugely enjoyed it. Thanks, Preet.